JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review March 30, 2001 / 6 Nissan, 5761

Richie Cunningham, the NYPD and the "Great Sabbath"

By Howie Beigelman with Binyamin L. Jolkovsky

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE Sabbath before Passover, known as Shabbes HaGadol, or, the Great Sabbath, commemorates the ancient Israelites taking sheep into their homes --- animals, which would, ultimately, become individual Passover sacrifices.

While the enslaved Jewish nation preformed this act of cultural "sacrilege" -- sheep, after all, were worshipped as gods in ancient Egypt -- their captors were forced into silence and inaction. Having just suffered nine previous plagues they, no doubt, knew to leave well enough alone.

But why, with the Passover story so chuck full of twists and turns and miracles, does Jewry focus on this one act, going so far as to name a special Sabbath in its honor?

Our sages note that when their freedom was finally at hand, the Jews, after having suffered centuries of dehumanizing persecution and forced labor, were not psychologically prepared to leave the land of their bondage. Sure, they believed that G-d's might and fury would protect them. But their slave mentality was also a powerful force. Some cataclysmic event needed to prepare this nomadic, penniless people for their awesome journey. A passage that would take them from Sinai to Moriah and beyond. A journey where they would witness miracles, overcome adversity and shine as a beacon unto the nations.

That act was the taking of the sheep.

Taking the sheep heralded Jewry's future. Frightened slaves were all of a sudden defying their oppressors. And doing so publicly. And proudly. The wretched were suddenly committing the greatest theological offense possible against their persecutors --- preparing to slaughter the object of Egypt's faithful worship!

It was a small act that set the Exodus into motion.

With this one puny act began the story that captivates humanity until this day, and shall forever capture the hearts and minds of man: The Red Sea splits, mighty Egypt is embarrassingly defeated, the Revelation at Sinai, and a forty year desert sojourn culminating with Solomon's Temple on Moriah. Prophets, kings, heroes and heroines --- Mordechai, Esther, the Maccabees, Chana, Daniel, Ezra, the Great Assembly. Bar Kochva, Rabbi Akiva, Yavneh, Masada, the Talmud. Maimonides, Nacmonides, Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna and Rabbi Israel Baal Shem. They all flow from that taking of sheep on that pre-national Sabbath.

New York's finest understand the power of a tiny act, too. Their Quality of Life campaign focuses on apprehending small-time criminals such as turnstile jumpers and squeegee men. Oft imitated, this strategy resulted in an astonishingly deep drop in crimes citywide.

The crime reduction follows fair Gotham's declaration of war on graffiti artists and turnstile hoppers simply because bigger, deadlier crimes flourish in an atmosphere that lacks concern for minor crimes. Panhandling to assault, even murder is a small logical leap. Zero tolerance for any breakdown in social norms is zero tolerance for any breakdown in social norms. By stopping loitering, you've set the stage for stopping murder.

Jewish tradition teaches that from the small, great emerges. A hurricane is simply individual water molecules harnessed together. The Torah understood. The NYPD understood. Rabbi Akiva, witnessing drop after drop of water destroying solid rock, understood.

Richie Cunningham understood better than almost anyone.

Remember the Happy Days episode where Richie (Ron Howard), hospitalized for drinking too much, explains to his pacing father (Tom Bosley) that he only had those itty bitty teeny weenie shot glasses? Still pacing, "Mr. C." asks how many? Richie's response: "About 72. "

Enough of anything, no matter how little, has power, and can knock you flat. That's the lesson of the Great Sabbath, the lesson learned in taking sheep. That is the lesson we teach Jewish children in every generation.

Yes, Viginialeh, little things do count. Sweat the small stuff.

We tend to focus on the great or dramatic. But the small and uninspiring, they change worlds and usher in greatness.

Maimonides teaches that it is more prudent to provide one coin to one hundred paupers, than one hundred coins at once to one pauper. One hundred tiny acts are better than one, awesome act. Enough small, teeny actions can transform our personality as New York was transformed and affect us with the same power that knocked Richie Cunningham flat on his back.

The Great Sabbath's eternal lesson is that we must each take sheep into our home. Not attending synagogue regularly? Begin to pray just a sentence a day. Don't give charity daily? Begin parting with one coin each morning. So it goes. A few moments of daily Torah study. Guarding our speech more carefully a few minutes daily. Judging others, especially those not like us, somewhat more favorably. Amazing transformations, personal and communal may result from such small acts.

Richie Cunningham knew the power. The NYPD did, too. The Guardian of Israel made it a foundation of our national existence. To paraphrase an ex-president, one point of light is totally meaningless in the black of night. But one thousand points of light is a different animal, altogether.

Do sweat the small stuff.

Howie Beigelman, is a New York-based attorney. Binyamin L. Jolkovsky is JWR's editor in chief. Comment by clicking here.


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